Several protests held against COVID-19 restrictions, journalist assaulted by police

Peaceful Assembly

On 26th January 2021, minibus and taxi operators who had suspended services took to the streets in Lilongwe to protest the increased price of fuel and restrictions imposed on the number of passengers allowed in public vehicles, a measure taken to curb the spread of COVID-19. Clashes were reported between police and protesters during the protests, while similar protests were also reported in Mwanza, Blantyre and Zomba.

In another protest also related to COVID-19 restrictions, on the 29th of January it was reported that sex workers in Lilongwe gathered in the streets carrying pamphlets to protest against police brutality. According to the protesters, some COVID-19 restrictions, such as the imposition of an 8 pm curfew on bars, had made them particular targets of the police, who often sought them out during curfew hours and beat them up. The protesters, led by the Female Sex Workers Association (FSWA), also said that the country’s COVID-19 restrictions, particularly the night curfew, was negatively impacting on their work and called on the government to adjust the restrictions to allow them to continue with their business.

Similarly, on 1st March 2021, pupils in Lilongwe took to the streets to demand the re-opening of schools which were closed in January 2021 after the country’s COVID-19 numbers began to soar. Although the government later ordered the re-opening of schools, this was yet to be done as defiant teachers demanded to first be given a risk allowance before resuming their duties. The protesting students wore their school uniforms and blocked the streets using rocks and branches, prompting the police to disperse the protests using tear gas.

Expression

On 22nd January 2021, a group of police officers attacked journalist Henry Kijimwana Mhango in Lilongwe, a correspondent for The Telegraph and BBC Africa Eye, after he asked if he could feature them in a story he was preparing on COVID-19. According to Mhango, the attack happened after he approached one of a group of officers who were beating people for not wearing face masks, asking him whether he could take pictures of them. The officer instead called him stupid and began beating him with a pipe, after he apologised and began to leave. About six other officers joined in the attack where they all beat him up with sticks and pipes. It was only after another officer intervened that Mhango was able to run away from the scene.

CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo said:

“Authorities in Malawi should investigate and hold accountable the police officers responsible for beating journalist Henry Kijimwana Mhango… Journalists are far too often attacked for reporting on the enforcement of COVID-19-related restrictions. The pandemic is difficult enough for journalists without having to worry that they will be assaulted while on the job.”

The Media Institute of South Africa’s Malawi chapter also condemned the attack and expressed concern at the continued assault of journalists in the line of duty by police officers. The Deputy Inspector General of police, Demster Chigwenembe, apologised for the incident and promised to take up the matter to identify those culpable.